Profile 2: Street photography with Mike Crippen

The most interesting kinds of photos are often those that look simple. They’re photos with a pure, straight forward vision but which you know, in fact, took time and expertise to capture. These images are ordinary yet most striking at one and the same.

Street photography falls under this calibre. It simply captures public places and snapshots of people within those spaces. These may be every-day locations, perhaps streets you even walk daily, yet these images can show places in a different light in one single photo. In a way, they sort of make you open your eyes and actually see the city around you.

I chatted to Cardiff street photographer Mike Crippen, 37, who met me after a long day at work and kindly took the time to tell me what it’s all about and fill me in on his own experience of working with film.

Walking past a billboard

Walking past a billboard

Mike only took to film two years ago after first learning photography on digital. He now owns a relatively small collection of three film cameras but hey, these certainly seem to be serving him well. His first was a Chinon CE-4 given to him by his Dad and he also picked up a Lomo Smena Symbol from a colleague at work. However his great street snapshots are caught on an old 1976 Soviet rangefinder known as a Zorki 4K (how cool does that sound?!) which is his main working camera. Mike explained that this is a perfect camera for street photography as it’s small and quiet, and has a long focus range up to 20m.

His photos record the day-to-day life on the Welsh capital’s streets and I wondered how he first came about this form of photography.

“I just sort of fell into street photography. It was circumstance,” he said. “I did have a phase of loving landscape photography and wanted to do that but I quickly found that I didn’t have a good enough camera, and I couldn’t afford all the really sharp lenses and sturdy tripods to support it. I also didn’t have the time and opportunity to go to the places I needed to. And well, I have a lunch break every day, I work in Cardiff, I can go out on my lunch break. And at first it was to just see what I could see, so I started taking pictures of things.

I just sort of fell into street photography. It was circumstance

“I had this idea I liked black and white [photos] but at this time I didn’t have any knowledge of the history of street photography. And it was only after a while that I realised that what I was doing was doing was street photography. That’s how it came about. And after that it all fell into place. I had the opportunity to do it and I didn’t need specialist equipment so I could just go out and do it.”

Double-yellow lined street

Double-yellow lined street

Mike may have been unsure about the nature of his work at the start but he has now developed a distinct talent, changing the paved white streets of Cardiff into compelling images. Rather than focusing on the obvious city landmarks he tends to photograph less distinct streets or objects or people; from the double-yellow lines in a back alley to a suited old man sat smoking on a public bench. I asked Mike why this sort of photography interests him.

“I think for me a photo just has to have something about it. Sometimes it’s just a reaction and it makes you feel something. I think as a good example, just recently the Third Floor Gallery had the exhibition of the Cardiff After Dark Series and people come in and you can hear their little reactions and gasps. Each one, even if they’re not sat there thinking or understanding the time taken to make that photo, it’s just the immediate reaction that is important and I don’t think you need much more than that. 

Sometimes it’s just a reaction and it makes you feel something

“I quite like shooting billboard posters and a person will walk past and the two will momentarily collide. And it might look like that billboard poster is looking at the person. It’s a pretty cheap shot and it’s pretty easy to do but I like that because someone looking at it will instantly go, oh yeh, and even though that may wear off after a couple of minutes it will have that initial impact.”

Suited man smoking

Suited man smoking

Mike snaps all of his photos in black and white film, much like other street photographers. For him, this makes ordinary things appear more reactionary in a photo. He then develops these photos himself at home which he scans into a negative scanner because he doesn’t (as of yet) have a darkroom. He filled me in on the technical advantages of shooting in black and white rather than colour.

“I much prefer the purity of black and white.  And colour street photography is very difficult. You can take a great picture but the eye could naturally be drawn to someone with a bright red coat in the top corner and, bang, you’re missing what’s in front of you. And I do also have an obsession with timelessness. Not in some sort of iconic, this could anytime, but just that black and white reduces everything down to what’s in front of you. It’s the composition. It makes you focus on the people, the situation, body shapes.

Black and white reduces everything down to what’s in front of you. It’s the composition

“Black and white chemicals and film are a lot easier to develop. It’s pretty easy as long as you keep an eye on what you’re doing and don’t deviate too much. I think the only time I’ve ever messed it up with black and white film is when I couldn’t get the film loaded onto the reel in a changing bag and ended up ripping it in half. I nearly cried I was that frustrated. As long as I’ve got it into the tank and got the chemicals in then it’s always come out pretty well. There’s refining, like getting dust off and other dry marks off of it, but you know, as for taking the film away and developing it myself into negatives to look at it’s always worked. That’s another reason why I use black and white, because there are practical consideration as well. It’s just easier.

Men in white coats

Men in white coats

Having established himself as a street photographer in Cardiff he recently listed himself as a documentary photography on his website too. I wondered what this meant for his future outlook on photography.

“Street photography is great but at the same time I wanted to look at other things as well. And street photo is really just documentary photography without a subject matter. So I started to look at the pictures I’d taken over the last few years that weren’t strictly street photography. Some purists would say street photography needs to have people in it and I do like street photography and I do know the history but at the same time I don’t want to be restricted by strict rules. Looking outside my more traditional street photography there was definitely a project that started to emerge, more like a document of Cardiff itself and rather than being iconic views of Cardiff or the people of Cardiff there was something more coming out of it. I haven’t defined it yet but there is a project coming out, which will contain street photography but it will have other things and that’s more documentary photography.

I don’t want to be restricted by strict rules

“I don’t think I’m leaving street photography but I think I’m developing more side streets, little avenues of interests, which will compliment it as well. I can do what I want really, I’m not professional so I don’t have to keep clients happy,and I’m self funded, so I’m trying to not retrain myself and be trapped by ideas. I’m taking it as it comes really.”

Mike knows a lot about photography and film but his enthusiasm and passion is also a sign that he is keen to improve himself as a photographer which only proves promising for any future projects he undertakes. Whatever direction Mike chooses to follow, if he continues to capture photos in a similar nature and with the same eye for producing extraordinary images from seemingly ordinary situations, I think there is much to be said for his work. But until then, check out more of his photos at www.mikecrippen.co.uk

All Rights Reserved to Mike Crippen

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